Unfortunately, Violence is the Answer
We live in a deeply violent country. America was founded when a bunch of lawyers, upset about a litany of taxes, incited the populace to armed resurrection against the legal institutions that governed them. Today we treat the founding fathers as demigods for engaging in violent conflict over expensive tea and paper. While there is much to praise them for, we have to acknowledge that to some extent we celebrate the founder’s willingness to resort to violence when the extant political system failed them.
With their political freedom secured, the founders chose to build a legal system which institutionalized discrimination of black citizens. When attempts to rectify America’s greatest moral failing through the political process failed, we fought a Civil War. The hard truth of the matter is that when a democracy or any legal regime fails, violence is the only recourse.
In subsequent decades, Jim Crow, another attempt to stack the legal deck against black Americans led to the rise of the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement was fundamentally an attempt for redress within the law — the request was simply for equal protection under the law. But the Civil Rights movement, a non-violent resistance failed.
America lauds non-violent resistance — the two heroes from the non-violent tradition being Gandhi and to a greater extent in America, Martin Luther King Jr. But it’s a pernicious lie that nonviolent resistance is the best way to throw off oppression. Nonviolent resistance can effect political and legal change, but it is impotent if the political and legal institutions themselves refuse to change. This is the situation we confront with police brutality and discrimination against black Americans today.
When the British left India, the common narrative is that Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance was a revolution. It seems far more likely that a battered and broke UK in post-war Europe had no interest or ability to govern a country a world away that was cracking along religious and ethnic lines (Pakistan was created as a compromise for a growing Muslim population) in a way that was eerily reminiscent of Europe’s great, recent tragedy.
Gandhi, unlike our founders, may have beaten a tax through nonviolent resistance, but he did not win a revolution that way — yet that’s the story we tell. We teach Dr. King’s brand of nonviolent resistance in elementary schools because nonviolence rhetoric is comforting to those in positions of institutional power and it’s an effective way to mollify the oppressed. But if we’re honest about King’s efforts and the Civil Right’s movement generally, despite some progress, both have failed utterly insofar as institutional discrimination of blacks in America is still ubiquitous.
By pursing redress within the legal system, all that the Civil Rights movement accomplished was to push the problem somewhere else. The thrust of the Civil Rights movement was about getting equal protection under the 14th Amendment. And in this, the civil right’s movement was effective.
But in a Supreme Court case from 1973 that is little discussed, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court held that wealth could not be a suspect class for purposes of applying strict scrutiny when due process claims are raised. In other words, through centuries of oppression America made sure that black citizens were poor and then in a bait and switch our highest court said, “You can’t be discriminated against because you’re black but you can be discriminated against because you’re poor.” This is an abject failure of the legal system to address systematic discrimination. So what is a group to do when the legal system stacks the deck against them and pulls the football away just as they’re about to kick it?
When the legal system fails to provide redress, history tells us time and again that violence usually ensues. And the genuinely scary part is that popular media is replete with overt threats of violent uprising.
In a particularly chilling song, Terrorist Threats, Ab-Soul announces, “If all the gangs in the world unified, we’d stand a chance against the military tonight.” It’s a threat, it’s likely true, and it points directly to the black swan in the room — such a violent resistance is likely to catch most people off-guard.
Kendrick Lamar picks up a similar theme in Mortal Man which is an interview between him and 2Pac in which the latter says “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, uh, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think America think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka. You know what I’m saying, it’s gonna happen.” These are popular songs by famous artists, not obscure incoherent rants. They are particularly ominous given recent events in Baltimore.
The protests in Baltimore and Ferguson suggest that African Americans as victims of state sanctioned violence are quite justifiably at their breaking point. It is my sincere hope that there is not continued or escalated violence, but we must open our eyes: we live in the developed country with the most state sanctioned state violence against a minority group and as John Legend noted at the Oscars this year, there are more black men in prison today than there were incarcerated during slavery. Our response must not be token non-sense or a non-answer.
If you landed in Baltimore on Monday as a visitor from mars you would see a police force replete with urban military equipment fighting a highly trained contingent of black, inner city insurgents. We are [nearly] engaged in a civil war, and if the last one taught us anything it’s that of all the kinds of wars, the civil ones are the most destructive and there are no winners.
Sure we need legal reform, but we simply must stop police brutality anyway we can or else those most afflicted will be left with no other option than to take matters into their own hands. Violence is the deepest of American traditions and we have resorted to it time and again for much less than centuries of systematic oppression. Nonviolent resistance only works if the legal system is willing to change. I hope we can muster the political will for genuine reform at the very least out of rational self interest, because all lives are endangered by the unsustainable position America occupies in 2015.